- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. this week started a legislative commission to discuss a senator’s complaint about prayer before sessions.

Mr. Miller formed the commission after fellow Democrat Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, who is Jewish, said she was offended by some prayers.

Mrs. Grosfeld, who is a member of the newly formed commission, which met for the first time Tuesday, now says she thinks prayer would be appropriate as long as it takes place before roll call.

However, references to Jesus Christ during the prayer still remain a concern.

“At the very least, we need to have as much control as … possible,” Mrs. Grosfeld said. She also said even with tougher rules, the Senate cannot control everything speakers say.

Mrs. Grosfeld said prayers before roll call would give senators the option of skipping it if it offended them. As it stands now, guests — sometimes clergy — are invited by senators to give an opening prayer after the roll is called, when members are required to be in their seats.

Sen. Larry E. Haines, Carroll County Republican and a Christian, reluctantly agreed with her point.

“I would prefer it to stay the same, but I don’t want them to eliminate the prayer,” said Mr. Haines, who also serves on the commission.

Mr. Haines said he had concerns about Mrs. Grosfeld’s effort to restrict the content of prayers.

“I don’t think anyone should be censored in the Senate chamber,” he said. “It is a public forum, and government should stay out of it.

“If government is going to tell people how to pray, then that is a government-sponsored prayer and that is totally wrong,” he said.

Another commission member, Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, Montgomery Democrat, disagreed but had her own thoughts.

“I see that as being a cosmetic thing,” she said. “If you let that happen, then I am scared you will have people being late to session.”

Senators and guest chaplains were referring to specific deities and not respecting written guidelines when they prayed, Mrs. Grosfeld and others said.

“It seemed to have reached a peak this last session with so many ministers or clergy people not following the guidelines,” she said. “There was a recognition that something needed to be done.”

Chaplains have opened Senate proceedings with a prayer for nearly 200 years, according to a Department of Legislative Services report.

Nationally, the practice was established over centuries of tradition and has been approved by a series of federal court rulings, despite the separation of church and state.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled prayer in state legislatures is constitutional in a 1983 case involving the Nebraska Legislature.

The court, in a case known as Marsh v. Chambers, overturned lower court rulings that prayers said by a chaplain who was paid by the state violated the First Amendment.

Commission members engaged in little discussion during Tuesday’s meeting, focusing mainly on staff reports on constitutional law, Maryland history and legislative prayer practices in other states and in the U.S. Congress.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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